The Short Hills Affair – MacKenzie-Papineau Rebellion 1837-1838
I am excited to have the opportunity to speak with young people about our history. History is living. It has been written with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Many have defended liberty so that you may enjoy the freedom you enjoy today. Yet there are forces at work that would rob us of our liberties. Let me explain.
“Every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” – John Locke, “The Second Treatise On Civil Government” It may surprise you to know that Locke’s philosophy of having a property in and of one’s own person resonated so deeply among the colonists of North America in the late 18th and on into the 19th century. Yet Locke’s ideas were based upon traditions founded many centuries prior to him. From Anglo-Saxon times parliaments in England had placed limits upon kings and their governments to protect and respect the rights of the individual. Absolute monarchy was unheard of until the time of “Bad King John”. Because of King John’s excesses the English barons forced him to give his assent to Magna Carta in June 1215 at Runnymede. Magna Carta is the first legal document constituting of a fundamental guarantee of rights and privileges. It took centuries for these legal rights to be extended to the common man, however Magna Carta forms their basis.
Law must be blind to race, creed, colour and sex for all to be deemed equal under it. Law must also recognize that our rights as individuals are an extension of our person, inherent to our very being. We are not free because governments afford us our “rights”, rather we are born free. Professor of History John Robson of the University of Ottawa states that this understanding of inherent rights is unique to the Anglo-sphere. He refers to it as our “Shared Legacy of Liberty”. It winds like a golden thread throughout all of our history. Time and again kings and governments have exceeded their legal mandate to govern. Time and again common people have rebelled against tyranny to bring about more responsible government.
How do these ideas, noble as they are, affect us today? I will be direct, special interest groups do not have rights. If the law is to recognize equality it must be blind, without prejudice of respecting one person’s interests or group’s interests above that of another. This is a significant challenge in today’s society where special interest groups have replaced an understanding that our rights are inherent. What do I mean by this? Let me quote Edmund Burke on this topic; “The great inlet by which a color for oppression has entered the world is by one man’s pretending to determine concerning the happiness of another, and by claiming to use what means he thinks proper in order to bring him to a sense of it. It is the ordinary and trite sophism of oppression.”
Let these great ideas frame our walking tour through St. Johns. Let your imagination travel back to the late 1830’s when what was then Upper Canada was involved in a mighty struggle to bring about suffrage and responsible government. We will learn what challenges our ancestors faced and how some of these challenges apply today. “In spring 1837, Lord John Russell, the British Whig politician who was then Leader of the House of Commons (the prime minister was then Viscount Melbourne), authored his “Ten Resolutions” on Upper and Lower Canada. The Resolutions removed the few means that the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada had to control the Executive Council. The Ten Resolutions were the final straw for William Lyon Mackenzie, and he now advocated severing Upper Canada’s link to Great Britain and recommended armed resistance to the British oppression.”, (edited by David F. Hemmings for the Niagara Historical Society, 2012). Government both in Britain and in the Canadas had once again exceeded its legal mandate to govern. Folks from the local populace who, like Samuel Chandler, had been born in the U.S. remembered why the American Constitution had clearly defined and repeated guarantees of limited government under law by recognizing the rights of individuals over those of the state. Many were ready to take up arms against a government they viewed as tyrannical. These circumstances formed the backdrop for the MacKenzie-Papineau Rebellion of 1837-1838 and therefore the part of that rebellion that occurred right here in St. Johns. This incident is known as the “Short Hills Affair”.
Not all were in favour of rebellion however. There were more sober and moderate folks who were advocating for reform by renewing the vigour with which they petitioned the government. Both the moderates and the rebels essentially wanted the same thing, namely suffrage and an end to tyrannical practices under the governing “Family Compact”. However, each employed radically different means to achieve their desired outcome. In the end, the moderates won. The MacKenzie-Papineau Rebellion failed to overthrow the government. Democratic reform came with the Baldwin Act of 1849 as a result of parliamentary discourse. This act of parliament had finally brought limited suffrage to Upper Canada. In spite of the moderates win it is also fair to say that the threat posed to the government by the MacKenzie-Papineau Rebellion had helped cement the final outcome. The government could no longer continue to resist the will of the people.
All throughout the Anglo-sphere this story has often been repeated. When governments became a law unto themselves the citizenry forced their governments to be responsible to them. The American Revolution was one such instance and was fought for perhaps the most British of all reasons, that no government had the right to tax its citizens without representation. This is the basis for the parliamentary system we have inherited. Our nation is founded on these ideals; “Law above government, the individual before the collective and fair play as opposed to raison d’état”. These underlying principles continue to guide our ideas of limited government under law. We must guard them jealously. There are forces that would rob us of them.
At the end of the tour I will provide you with a list of web-sites. In using them you may research the many topics on which I can barely touch today since time does not permit me to do so. I hope all of you will develop a passion for understanding how it is that we have achieved a society renown for its tolerance and fairness. I encourage you to learn more about the tyranny of the “Family Compact”, the grievances suffered in Upper and Lower Canada during the 1830’s, discover more about the firebrand MacKenzie himself, his newspaper “The Colonial Advocate”, his Lower Canadian colleague Papineau, as well investigating more about Samuel Chandler and his fellow rebels. Their leader Colonel James Morreau was the only one executed for the Short Hills Affair while many others, like Chandler, were deported to Van Diemen’s Land, now known as the state of Tasmania, Australia. Learn how Chandler escaped from that penal colony to return to America undergoing many harrowing exploits of daring do. Thank you for listening. Now let us walk down the valley to the former site of Chandler’s home. There we will begin our tour.